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Jewish Social Studies 7.2 (2001) 114-148

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Antisemitism as Distorted Politics: Adorno on the Public Sphere

Brett R. Wheeler

In a parable of modern politics, no two figures could contrast more sharply than the antisemite and the work of art. It may be a comic surprise to find these two associated with one another in political terms at all. Their proximity, however, offers an apposite differentiation of the two sides of the modern political personality. For in the work of Theodor W. Adorno, each figure represents a competing ideal. The work of art and the antisemite are endpoints in the development of the subject's relation to the historical world. Their juxtaposition here will serve to illuminate the character of antisemitism as the profound distortion of public life--of politics and the public sphere, which in its ideal, normative form is enacted by the work of art as a fictional space of ethical exchange between Self and Other.

Because Adorno's thought is as much known for its irreverence to application as for its philosophical insight, translating these abstract terms into illuminating analysis will almost certainly prove tortuous. This article is no attempt to make the path straighter. Rather, it takes seriously Adorno's own mandate, that the "only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption." 1 However tendentious the attempt, reading Adorno's theory of antisemitism as a theory of the public sphere nonetheless serves his will to estrange and to displace the familiar in order to redeem flashes of insight sedimented precisely in what is familiar. [End Page 114]

I have a bipartite goal here: to retrace the motivation of Adorno's thinking on antisemitism to a crisis in political life, and to secure the historiographic validity of these philosophical insights by linking them to the specific context of events and to the particularity of the victims. Keeping this goal in sight may require that familiar ground be trod again and that steps already made be retraced. In such astrological terms as those that lured Adorno back to Los Angeles in the 1950s, the constellation should become discernible connecting Adorno's thinking on antisemitism with three other considerations, two in his work and one not: first, with the utopian politics of his philosophy of the artwork; second, with his general theory or anthropology of modern ethics; and, finally, with the methodological challenges of Holocaust historiography posed here in exemplary form by the work of Saul Friedländer. By construing a semblance of meaning encompassing these points and framed by a concern with public life in the modern world, I hope to unveil a pattern of light that has been stoically shaded by Adorno's saturnine polemic but that might now illuminate that discrepant relation between a historical narrative and the particularity of its victims and perpetrators which has quite properly dogged Holocaust historiography.

In what follows, the philosophical lines of antisemitism and of the work of art in Adorno's thinking will become more sharply drawn when they are juxtaposed with an implicit theory of public life more familiarly expounded by Adorno's one-time assistant, Jürgen Habermas. 2 We can then turn to the inescapable historiographic challenges that all theories of antisemitism face, because they are inextricably entwined in the explication and exegesis of the Holocaust. Historiographic issues indeed will demand repeated attention: theories of antisemitism and histories of the Holocaust must address, if not overcome, the incommensurability of its representation with the particularity of its victims, events, and perpetrators. As part of a larger critique of modernity, Adorno's theory of antisemitism is as guilty as any of adumbrating an explanatory or hermeneutic reconciliation of the individual events and agents, on the one hand, with the import of the Holocaust, on the other, as a historical or theological fissure writ large. The first two sections of this article reconstruct a critique of modernity that allows Adorno's work to avoid traps set...


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